With hype high, Wacha looking forward, not back
After sensational stretch run, expectations lofty for 22-year-old starter
CINCINNATI -- Yadier Molina wouldn't let Michael Wacha leave until he had his ear.
The 22-year-old had just thrown his final pitch of 2013, the last of four consecutive balls to soon-to-be World Series MVP David Ortiz. It was a crashing end to what had been a fairytale ride, and Molina wanted to ensure that Wacha would reflect on what had been -- a postseason run of 27 innings in which he allowed three runs and notched four wins -- instead of the finality of that World Series moment.
Wacha handed manager Mike Matheny the ball, ready to return to the sanctuary of the dugout. Molina blocked his path and tried to lock eyes with the rookie right-hander, who couldn't force himself to look back.
"Keep your head up," Molina recalls telling him. "You did a great job for us."
Wacha stewed over his Game 6 start much more than others who weren't too short-sighted to forget that without him, the Cardinals never would have been two wins away from the franchise's 12th championship in the first place. October was a flash of Wacha's potential. Now is the organization's first time to see if success can be sustained.
Expectations will be reasonable, but hype will be high as Wacha takes the mound for his season debut on Wednesday. He hasn't pitched in a meaningful game since Molina's mound intervention, and that has left plenty of time for everyone else to predict what the encore could possibly be.
Wacha, though, has tried hard not to tie then to now. He realizes the expectations could be burdensome if he did.
"I thought about [that October success] over the offseason, but it's a new year," Wacha said. "I'm not really thinking about it at all, but [rather] focusing on this year coming up."
A refusal to expect that he would continue to dominate as he did led Wacha to add to his pitch repertoire since resuming a throwing program over the winter. He has worked to improve the bite on his curveball -- a pitch that, according to fangraphs.com, he threw only five percent of the time in 2013 -- so that he can incorporate the pitch more frequently.
Wacha also developed a cutter, turning an experimental pitch into one that garnered him outs during Spring Training. He'll still be fastball-changeup heavy, but the right-hander hopes he's no longer so predictable.
"When you come up, you're just doing everything you can to survive, so he was a two-pitch pitcher, for the most part," Matheny said. "Michael was a guy, I believe, who saw what he had to do to stay on top. 'The league is going to try and figure me out, my trends, my tendencies, and I better be able to mix some more things in there.' He's definitely taken steps forward with his game and using his other pitches much better."
"The curveball, he has found the release point," Molina added. "It was a good pitch in Spring Training, and hopefully it can continue to be. He deserves to be here."
Adversity awaits Wacha, as it does for all pitchers entering their first full season in the Majors. He's no longer an unknown, able to take the league by storm as they try to figure him out. Teams have plenty of video now, and, in many cases, firsthand experience that will prompt adjustments.
Wacha's success will, in many ways, be tied to how well he can adjust back.
"I think there's a confidence, but not arrogance," Matheny said. "That humble confidence that a guy is willing to work and get better."
Wacha hopes a strong spring showing -- he allowed four earned runs in 20 1/3 innings -- will be the springboard to a quick start to the regular season. He opens with two consecutive starts against the Reds, who Wacha kept scoreless over 10 innings a year ago. The second of these starts will come during the Cards' home opener.
It will be Wacha's first time back on the Busch Stadium mound since a National League Championship Series start that culminated with him hoisting MVP hardware. He'll forever have that as a reminder of how the journey started. Now it is time to see what stops may be next.
"My advice to Wacha is the question that I ask him every time: 'What are you going to do different?'" ace Adam Wainwright said. "He says, 'Nothing'. I say, 'Perfect'. That's my advice to Wacha. Don't do anything different than what you're doing and you'll be fine."